Have a Holiday Healthy Heart – Avoiding Common Contributors to ‘Christmas Coronary’

Northern California Medical Associates (NCMA) Cardiovascular Services provides some insights into the specifics of who might be most vulnerable and shares some tips on the most common holiday stressors to avoid.


In a year-long study conducted back in 1999 researchers discovered there were consistently more deaths from heart disease during the winter than there were during the summer. In fact, up to one third more deaths were recorded during the months of December and January than during the summer months. “As cardiac specialists we have known for quite some time that there are certain times of year that seem to trigger deadly cardiovascular events,” says Dr. Thomas Dunlap from NCMA Cardiology. “These events happen more often during the holidays and into the New Year.” This sad phenomenon is commonly referred to as the “Merry Christmas Coronary” and “Happy New Year Heart Attack”.

Holiday Heart Failure Blues

Heart failure, a condition where the heart fails to pump as much blood as the body naturally requires, accounts for about two percent of total healthcare costs in industrialized countries. Risk of death from heart failure within five years of diagnosis can be as high as 30-50 percent. Heart failure is also the leading cause of hospitalization for people 65 and over.

Although the reasons for an increased likelihood of heart attacks during the holidays varies widely there is a list of contributing factors that researchers have been able to pin-point as most likely causes including:

• Sudden weight-gain due to holiday overeating
• An increase in salt consumption with salty treats and overly process meat products
• Consumption of fatty meals that can have adverse effects on vascular function
• Excess use of alcohol during the holidays – binge drinking – which can precipitate arrhythmias such as atrial fibrillation
• Emotional stress
• Persistent fatigue and lack of sleep

Other well-known factors that can increase a person’s potential for seasonal heart complications include respiratory issues due to wood burning stoves and fireplaces – which releases toxic particulates into the air. These types of airborne pollutants have been associated with an increase in cardiac events and can also contribute to high blood pressure. Sudden and excess physical exertion such as snow shoveling is also something that can lead to a cardiac event during the winter months.

Avoiding the Avoidable

“The best prescription for adults, particularly older adults, for avoiding a heart issue during the holidays is to not over-eat, stay away from overly fatty and salty foods and curb the intake of alcoholic drinks,” says NCMA Cardiologist Dr. Patrick Coleman. “Healthy people can make simple changes to reduce their heart failure risk by engaging in moderate physical activity, not smoking and take steps to maintain a healthy weight.”

Also at the top of the list of known precautions that can be taken to avoid holiday heart failure includes – managing existing health issues that are cardiovascular risk factors such as hypertension, smoking, diabetes and high cholesterol. Patients with preexisting health issues may do well do avoid exposure to severely cold temperatures and resist participating in outdoor activities on days when air pollution alerts are issued. Doctors also recommend that these patients consider flu shots where appropriate.

Keeping Heart Healthy for the Long Term

In a new study reported recently in the American Heart Association journal ‘Circulation: Heart Failure’ researchers say that participating in more than an hour of moderate or half an hour of vigorous exercise per day may cut a person’s risk of heart failure in half (about 46 percent). Of the 4,500 adults that participated in this study who reported that they walked briskly, avoided obesity, maintained a moderately active leisure time, drank in moderation and didn’t smoke, had half the risk of heart failure as adults who did not optimize these same risk factors.

Researchers in another recent study that echoes similar results conducted by the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University, followed 4,490 men and women age 65 and older who had no obvious signs of heart failure. In this study researchers discovered that adults who walked at a pace of at least two miles per hour had a lower risk of developing heart failure. The most significant findings associated with reduced rates of heart failure coming out of this study included:

• participate in leisure activities that burned more than 845 or more calories/week
• don’t smoking
• modest alcohol intake of one drink or more a week (not to exceed 1-2 drinks/day)
• avoid obesity

According to the American Heart Association, a healthy diet and lifestyle are the two best strategies to employ against cardiovascular disease. This holiday season can be the best time to commit to a healthier lifestyle by adopting an overall plan for making choices and taking the simple steps that lead to long-term benefits of a healthy heart.

About NCMA Cardiology Services

From cardiac catheterization to open-heart surgery, from electrophysiology to rehabilitation and prevention, the NCMA’s Cardiovascular Services team is dedicated to delivering the highest quality care and the best patient results. The professional staff not only maintains its commitment to patients’ health and well-being but maintains a tradition of excellence and expertise in the practice of the most current, innovative treatments in cardiovascular medicine. For more information, visit the NCMA website.




Additional Resources: http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/110/25/3744.full